Those Hornets Really Sting

October 11th, 2010

Just saw the Swedish film version of THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS' NEST, due in U.S. theaters next month. I thought it was outstanding -- the most difficult to condense and yet the most fully-formed and exciting of the three movies made from Stieg Larsson's posthumously-published bestsellers.

The cast is once again perfect, from Nooni Rapace's touching and savage portrayal of Lis Salander and Michael Nyqvist's gentle but surprisingly muscular Blomkvist to Annika Hallin as Blomkvist's brilliant lawyer sister. Lisa Endre as Blomkvist's lover and publishing partner Erika suffers the most from the necessary cutting (no spoilers here, but an extra dimension of her part in the book has been left out.)

And the villains are spectacular -- mostly because they look like ordinary Swedish civil servants instead of a secret Right Wing faction of the government. Only Georgi Staykov as Zalachenko and the unkillable Micke Spreitz as Niedermann have a nasty glare of evil. And Anders Ahlbom Rosendahl, who plays the viscious psychotherapist intent on locking Salander away for life (until he is reduced to babbling by Lis' lawyer) is especially despicable.

HORNET'S NEST was directed with great style and a modicum of restraint by Daniel Alfredson and written by Jonas Rykerberg and Ulf Ryberg; Alfredson and Rykerberg also worked on THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, which shows how many talented people there are in the newly-bustling Swedish film industry.

Who knows what the American versions will be like? Daniel Craig is a strong choice for Blomkvist, but as for the others…

Meanwhile, as you hopefully saw on the CBS Sunday Morning program on Oct. 11th, there is the tantalizing promise of a fourth (or is it a fifth?) manuscript ready to roll, as soon as Larsson's squabbling heirs and heiresses can come to an agreement.


October 11th, 2010

(To catch up, see below. And, to make catching up easier, all the archives are now up on their own site -- in order of appearance.)

CHAPTER NINE -- Manny, Ivan and Al

    Waiting to greet them at the door was Manny LaMancha. The only feature he shared with his namesake was a woeful countenance. The rest of him was as graceful and muscular as a ballet dancer.

    “Al Zymer,” Manny growled in a voice that was pure Chicago mobster. “As I live and occasionally breathe. So you figured out the elevator trick. You're not as dumb as you look.”

   Al swallowed the insult. “It was my pal here who did that. Ivan Davis, this is the notorious Manny LaMancha.”

    “Yeah, we've met,” Manny said. “And I follow your blog every day.” He gestured to the short, round guy from the elevator who stood on his left, one hand in his jacket pocket. “This is my associate, Creighton Barrell. You boys wanna play?”

     “Mr. LaMancha,” said Ivan, “I must say that I'm shocked – shocked! – to find illegal gambling going on in our fair city.”

     Manny grinned. “CASABLANCA, right? I love that movie. You guys sure you don't fancy some poker or a turn on the wheel? No? Okay, then. To what do I owe the honor of your visit?”

    “You remember a woman called Tina Carone?” Al asked. LaMancha's grin disappeared. “I don't think so,” he replied carefully. “Why do you ask?”

     “Well, my old LAPD partner, Lou Gabriel, told me the other day that he'd just had a call from some weirdo in Arizona who says he knows where she's buried. I said, 'So what? Everybody knows. You and I saw her go under at Woodlawn.' 'Sure. But Al, this guy says the casket we watched had somebody else's body in it.'”

   "I don't understand what this has to do with me,” Manny said.

   “Well, I happened to mention what Lou said to a friend who's helped me in the past.  She blurted out your name,” said Al.

   “Was this your English friend in the Motion Picture Home? She's even more addle-brained than you are. As for Gabriel, he was always just a dumb cop.”

     Zymer instantly regretted giving the gangster a link to his sources; he had heard stories of LaMancha's savage revenges. “Okay, let's forget that one,” Al said. “What's this I hear about you owning a racquet club? Got any swimming pools?”

    “Yeah, two great ones and a Jacuzzi. Why don't you drop in for a splash tomorrow? I'll leave your name at the desk.”

     “Sound fine,” Al said. “After that terrific meal we just had upstairs, I could use the exercise.”

    “You should have told me you guys were coming – I would've comped you. Hope you didn't have to pay the tab yourself.”

    “No, I've got a rich client,” Zymer said.

    “Lucky you. Anybody I might know?”

    “Probably not,” said Al. “He's a solid citizen.”


     Next morning at 11:30, Al got off a bus outside the Primrose Racquet Club. Like most of Ventura, it had a clean and polished look – unlike the clogged streets of L.A., littered with garbage. Al had an old aunt, his mother's youngest sister, who owned a lemon ranch on the east side of town. Maybe he'd pay her a visit – if he could remember her name...

    He'd spent the night in Ivan's rambling house on Foothill Avenue, which had a fine view of the Pacific several miles below it. Davis had offered bed and breakfast, guessing that Al's rich client was a myth. “The kids are living in Sonoma and San Francisco,” he said. “I could use the company.”

    Al knew that Ivan's wife Shirley had died last year, and that his son Mark was running a winery in Napa. “What's Rosie up to in Frisco?” he asked.

   “Working for a distribution company, Mordam Records. And her band, now called Cockpit, is selling lots of discs and concert seats.”

     The band's new name made Al smile. Rosie Davis had been the bass guitar player of the all-girl group since her days at UC Santa Barbara: it had started as PMS, even though a folk trio called Patty, Mary and Sara objected. He remembered that most of the bridesmaids at Rosie's wedding in a posh Santa Barbara hotel were PMS members – one of them, a sweet and gentle girl whose studs and tattoos startled the more conservative Japanese relatives of the groom.


   As Al slid into the Primrose's outdoor pool, he thought – as he often did in new pools – about the morning 30 years ago when he arrived at his favorite spot, the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire, only to be stopped at the door. “Can't let you in today, Al,” said the security guard who used to be a cop. “Some lady who comes in even earlier than you was electrocuted – a broken light bulb fried her when she jumped in.”

   These memories filled Al's mind as he swam some laps, alone in the sun-warmed outdoor  pool. He was doing a backstroke: he looked up behind him and his heart froze. Some vehicle – it might have been a a tractor or an earthmover  – had crunched into a power pole just above the pool, and was carrying its high voltage right at him.

    Al scrambled and splashed his way as fast as he could to the nearest edge of the pool. But he knew he'd never be able to pull his aging bones out of the water in time.

   Suddenly, a pair of hands grabbed his and yanked him to safety – just seconds before the pole fell and the water sizzled. He looked up and saw a short, wiry guy who he'd noticed working in the pool area.

   “Christ, that was close,” Al's savior said in a surprisingly high tenor voice. “I've never lost a club member that way.  A couple of heart attacks, but never an electrocution.”

   “I've seen the results of one, and it wasn't pretty. Jeez, buddy, I really owe you one. My name's Al, by the way.”

    “Well, Al, I'm Dana. And it looks like you pissed somebody off.”

     Dana was right. Al thought about his near miss. Was it an accident or a coincidence? He didn't think so – somebody had definitely tried to kill him. It had to be LaMancha. But why? What had Al done to make himself so unpopular? Could it be anything to do with Tina Carone?

     As promised, Manny had left a guest pass at the club's desk. Al signed in and was directed to a clean, no-nonsense locker room. Not much good at bending these days, he'd asked for a higher locker, and found it perfect as he scrambled into his bathing suit and made his way down the corridor. On his left was the entrance to the pools and hot tub. He showered quickly, examined the pools – one indoors, the other outside, both lightly attended – and decided on a soak before his swim.

   There were two other old guys in the Jacuzzi, a tall white man and a smaller Japanese. Both gave Al a warm welcome and immediately launched into their respective biographies. The white guy's claim to fame was that his kid brother owned one of the largest software companies in the business. The Japanese gent, Mifune Valentine, had an Italian restaurant. Al sensed that the hot tub meetings were an important part of their social lives, so he listened, smiled and contributed a heavily-edited story of his life.

(To Be Continued Next Monday, October 18th)

Copyright © 2010 by Dick Adler

When Men Were Men

When Men Were Men
October 7th, 2010

Once again, the folks at Boing Boing have been mining my past life. Here's a cover of one of the men's adventure mags which I used to edit and write for in my wasted youth.

A Job Application From Hunter Thompson -- Priceless

October 5th, 2010 From Boing Boing

In October 1958, a pre-fame Hunter S. Thompson applied for a job at the Vancouver Sun:


October 1, 1958

57 Perry Street, New York City


I got a hell of a kick reading the piece Time magazine did this week on The Sun. In addition to wishing you the best of luck, I'd also like to offer my services.

Since I haven't seen a copy of the "new" Sun yet, I'll have to make this a tentative offer. I stepped into a dung-hole the last time I took a job with a paper I didn't know anything about (see enclosed clippings) and I'm not quite ready to go charging up another blind alley.

By the time you get this letter, I'll have gotten hold of some of the recent issues of The Sun. Unless it looks totally worthless, I'll let my offer stand. And don't think that my arrogance is unintentional: it's just that I'd rather offend you now than after I started working for you.

I didn't make myself clear to the last man I worked for until after I took the job. It was as if the Marquis de Sade had suddenly found himself working for Billy Graham. The man despised me, of course, and I had nothing but contempt for him and everything he stood for. If you asked him, he'd tell you that I'm "not very likable, (that I) hate people, (that I) just want to be left alone, and (that I) feel too superior to mingle with the average person." (That's a direct quote from a memo he sent to the publisher.)

Nothing beats having good references.

Of course if you asked some of the other people I've worked for, you'd get a different set of answers.

If you're interested enough to answer this letter, I'll be glad to furnish you with a list of references — including the lad I work for now.

The enclosed clippings should give you a rough idea of who I am. It's a year old, however, and I've changed a bit since it was written. I've taken some writing courses from Columbia in my spare time, learned a hell of a lot about the newspaper business, and developed a healthy contempt for journalism as a profession.

As far as I'm concerned, it's a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity. If this is what you're trying to get The Sun away from, then I think I'd like to work for you.

Most of my experience has been in sports writing, but I can write everything from warmongering propaganda to learned book reviews.

I can work 25 hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don't give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations.

I would rather be on the dole than work for a paper I was ashamed of.

It's a long way from here to British Columbia, but I think I'd enjoy the trip.

If you think you can use me, drop me a line.

If not, good luck anyway.

Sincerely, Hunter S. Thompson

(P.S. He didn't get the job)


October 4th, 2010

(To catch up, see below. And, to make catching up easier, all the archives are now up on their own site -- in order of appearance.)


I had been raised in a town near Ventura called Thousand Oaks. I was a late addition, and my parents – both now retired UC professors – had wanted their only child to grow up in a quiet, safe place. Berkeley certainly had its charms (among them the world's best pizza at Zachary's), but the city itself was becoming increasingly noisy and dangerous. When a colleague recommended Thousand Oaks, we checked it out and made the move.

My favorite place in the town was a bookstore called Mysteries To Die For, where my taste for crime fiction was honed. Such local writers as John Shannon, Gary Phillips, Lee Lockwood and many others read, signed and discussed their latest books on a regular basis. It was as close to heaven -- and as far from the school library -- as a budding mystery lover could get. My mother, of course, objected to my new love of mysteries: she was a historian, and a bit scornful of genre fiction. But my old man, a musician with broader tastes, loved a good thriller and encouraged me.

I could have used my parents' connections to get into Berkeley, but having grown up there I decided to try a new place. UC Santa Barbara looked interesting: they even had a course on vampire literature in their catalogue. I signed up for it to give me a lull in my otherwise heavy schedule. Lucky I did. It was an interesting group -- 30-odd (some very odd) students, most of us looking for a gut course, and a few with a real interest in the subject. We were instructed with a straight face by an assistant professor who had a taste for blood. And there in the front row was an absolutely stunning woman named Suzie Charpentier.

Like me, Suzie was unattached -- though not for want of trying by every other male in the class, including the instructor. Fear of failure kept me from immediately joining the line. But one day during the first week of our class, I walked into a coffee shop called Nicoletti's in Isla Vista and saw that Suzie was sitting alone at a table, reading. It was now or never.

"Mind if I share your space, fellow bloodsucker?" I asked in as jaunty a manner as I could.

She lifted her eyes (the color of Canadian whiskey, as one of my favorite Nanci Griffith songs said) from her book -- an old Ross Macdonald paperback, I noticed -- and then actually smiled. "Saul, isn't that your name?"

I tried to hide my delight at her recognition. "And you are Suzie, no? Are you enjoying THE WAY SOME PEOPLE DIE? It's one of my favorites."

"Oh yes," she replied. "I've liked Macdonald best ever since I read that very rude remark about him in Chandler's letters. Do you know it?"

"The one which attacks Macdonald for describing a car as 'acned with rust'? I always thought Chandler was a British public school boy trying to act tough. He was never in Hammett's league, or Macdonald's."

We went on in this delicious vein for an hour, then adjourned to my room. The rest, as they say, is history...

CHAPTER EIGHT -- Al and Ivan

Ivan Davis pulled his ancient but gleaming Triumph Razorback, which looked like a small Bentley, into the valet parking slot at the side of Waterworks. “Hope you guys got a reservation,” the attendant said as he admired the vehicle. “We're standing room only tonight.”

Ivan and Al assured him they were covered. Prepared to spend some time staring around at the amazing restoration job in spite of their reservation, they were surprised to hear the lovely young woman at the desk saying that their table was ready. “If the food is as good as the service, we're in for a treat,” Ivan said. “I hope you've got a credit card with two hundred bucks on it.”

“Don't worry,” Al reassured him. “My client coughed up good.” Another lie; he might have to risk using the fake American Express card he'd paid a former client $500 for.

The menu began with a bang, and got even better as they read it out loud, like Orson Welles in that old commercial:

“CHILI DUSTED PRAWNS WITH ROASTED GARLIC Sautéed to perfection with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and rosemary ~ 14 “ARTICHOKE BRUSCHETTA Marinated artichokes and fresh tomatoes with basil and lemon. Served on grilled artisan bread ~ 11 “BEEF CARPACCIO Thinly sliced Filet Mignon drizzled with a lemon dill aioli, topped with shaved Parmesan and fried capers ~ 13 And that was just the starters. Ivan and Al plunged avidly ahead into the main courses:

“PAN-SEARED CHICKEN TAPENADE Crispy half chicken roasted to perfection and finished with our olive tapenade. Served with wild rice and seasonal vegetables ~ 23 “BRAISED BEEF SHORT RIBS Slow roasted for over 8 hours. Served on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes, peppers and onions then smothered in our natural pan sauce ~ 25 “LOBSTER POT PIE Tender chunks of Maine lobster and seasonal vegetables surrounded by a portobello and black truffle brandy sauce. Served in a clay pot topped by a buttery puff pastry crust (Please allow 30 minutes to prepare) ~ 45 “HERB CRUSTED RACK OF LAMB Succulent New Zealand lamb plated with a veal demi glace and mint bernaise. Served with crispy rosemary potatoes ~ 37 “NEW YORK STEAK 14-ounce New York steak dusted with Kona sea salt and paired with our red russet garlic mashed potatoes and fresh local vegetables. ~ 37”

Ivan finally settled on the prawns, followed by the short ribs. After warily checking out the prices, Al said “Fuck it” and ordered the carpaccio and a New York steak adorned with cracked pepper demi glace, sauteed portabello mushrooms and shoestring onions.

As they waited for their pricey grub, Al and Ivan checked out what Manny and his partners had done to the stately old bank. The style was an impressive mix of Colonial and art-deco influences: hand-stenciled ceilings, wood paneling and murals painted by various artists. “I'm sure they had a decorator,” Al said. “The Manny I knew could never have come up with this.”

The food was absolutely wonderful, leaving them both smiling with delight. The tab had come in at $178; Al added a $38 tip and nervously handed over his fake AmEx card – which sailed through like a charm.

Still beaming, they waited for the elevator to take them up to the top floor, which reportedly offered spectacular views. It too lived up to its reputation.

Going down, they shared the ride with two guys who looked familiar to Al. He glanced over at Ivan to see if his friend shared his own vague recollection, but Davis apparently didn't. Then it dawned on Zymer: they were a couple of Manny LaMancha's crew from Los Angeles.

Al and Ivan got out first; one of the other guys – the short and round one -- muttered something about leaving his wallet upstairs as he pushed the button which closed the door. On a hunch, Al watched the display which showed what floor the elevator was on. It hadn't moved. Al punched the “Up” button; the car arrived empty. Where in hell had those boys gone?

“I think there's another floor under this one,” Al said. “Wanna take a look?” They got into the elevator. Al pushed the “Down” button. Nothing happened. He pushed it again. Still nothing.

“I've got an idea,” Ivan said. He reached over Al and pushed “Up” and “Down” at the same time. It worked; the elevator moved slowly downward. Al reached for his .38, remembering at the last minute that his permit had been yanked last year when he hit 70.

The elevator door slid open, revealing a long room that looked at first glance like a cross between a Las Vegas casino and a very stylish cowboy saloon. It was full of people playing cards, dice and roulette. The absence of slot machines gave the place a distinctly upscale aura. Although the closest he'd been to Montecarlo was watching a James Bond movie, Al knew that this was a much classier spot than any in Vegas.

Copyright © 2010 by Dick Adler

(To Be Continued Next Monday, October 11th)


October 4th, 2010

Laurie R. King is so good at creating unforgettable characters from the past (I've mentioned her flawless standalone TOUCHSTONE, as well as her stunning Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series) that her present-day Kate Martinelli books about a lesbian cop in San Francisco tend not to get the attention they deserve.

But in 2007's THE ART OF DETECTION, which I'm reading for inspiration as I pound away at my own FORGET ABOUT IT serial mystery which continues today, she goes through the roof -- combining her two series into a compelling, heart-breaking personal story that stands on its own lovely legs in both periods.

I'll post a full review soon, but let me just say here that it's about a visit by someone (Conan Doyle? Sherlock Holmes his own self?) to San Francisco in 1924 -- which leads to a mysterious and possibly tremendously valuable manuscript and the murder of an eminent, inscrutable Sherlockian named Philip Gilbert, a character Conan Doyle might well have enjoyed.


September 27th

I find that as I plow ahead on my serial novel, FORGET ABOUT IT, I turn back to some of my favorite writers for fuel and inspiration. Does this happen to anyone else?

I've been dipping into William Gibson (I missed SPOOK COUNTRY, and it should definitely be read before his latest, ZERO HISTORY.) Also a great Laurie R. King book, THE ART OF DETECTION, in which she combines her two series into a fabulous story. And many missed or forgotten Matt Scudder classics by Lawrence Block, such as EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE.

With mentors like this, how can I go wrong?



September 27th, 2010

(To catch up, see below. And, to make catching up easier, all the archives are now up on their own site -- in order of appearance.)


I was trying to explain my job and my very weird but also oddly intriguing new employer to Suzie, who worked as a medical researcher, had legs and a bottom that stopped traffic, and shared my love for crime fiction.

   “I sometimes think he's putting on the senility bit to see how I react,” I told her. “Other times, I'm not so sure.”

   “That in itself is a symptom of early-stage Alzheimer's,” she said. “ 'Do I have it, or don't I? You decide.' "

   “For example,” I said,  “I went back to his office to see if I could find any evidence of the shot he thinks somebody took at him. Sure enough, there was a bullet hole in the wall, behind a curtain. And he visited an old English actress, a former lover or so I gather, at the Motion Picture Home. She's helped him out before. This time, although she's almost gone to live with the fairies, she suddenly started babbling about a guy called Manny LaMancha – I kid you not – in the Witness Protection Program, and Al asked me to find out where he is.

   "It was a cinch; turns out this windwill-tilter is ensconced in Ventura, our neighbor to the north. He's serving as a city councilman and owner of a health club. Then, when I told the old boy about this, he said he knew just the guy to get us more info: a journalist called Ivan Davis, who lives up there. So did he know where Manny was all the time, or is he pulling my chain? How should I handle this, my wise and beautiful love?”

   “So Zymer had a hot relationship going with this actress? What does he look like, anyway?”

   “Certainly not like an ex-cop,” I said. “In fact, he looks a lot like a description I once read of one of our favorite writers, Fredric Brown -- short, fine-boned, with delicate features. Al looks more like a retired professor than a bull.”

   “Some women go for that type. Lucky for you, Mr. Harry Covert, I'm not one of them,” Suzy answered slyly.

   We spent the rest of the day proving that in bed.

CHAPTER SIX: Manny, Inc.

   Manny LaMancha was having trouble sleeping in his Ventura hideaway. His bed was adjustable, extra long, and cost as much as a used Toyota. But its features weren't helping tonight.

   Thanks to a tip-off from his Witness Protection handler, Manny had indeed heard that Al was on his trail. “What the fug?” he exploded, as he did to everything these days. Ventura was a quiet, well-run small city, but his new deal with a famous local actor meant he had to raise a lot of cash for their fancy restaurant. Just gutting and redecorating the old bank on Main Street had cost him about $2 million, and they weren't done yet. The actor lent his name but rarely opened his fat wallet. He would of course accept his hefty share of the loot – especially from the illegal gambling room they planned in the secret cellar.

   Why was that nutty old fart Zymer after him? Could he have learned about or figured out Manny's connection with getting him disgraced and fired from the LAPD? It was worth looking into, and LaMancha still had some guys on the Los Angeles turf who could help. And the top cop who was also involved with that dead girl was still in place, and owed Manny a big one.

    The same goniff from the Witness Protection Program who had tipped off LaMancha about Al's sudden interest also passed the tip to LAPD Chief Byron Gates – who reacted in a similar fashion. He buzzed his secretary, telling her to bring him the Zymer file.

   Gates read the file through carefully, although he knew the details by heart. Two names popped out like warning flags: Tina Carone and Katie Troncoso. Two dead women whose ghosts still haunted him.

   Meanwhile, Al was getting ready for a date of his own. Sex was problematic these days, but Tess Tosterone – a well-muscled gun dealer – might just be the answer.

  She was, all things considered -- and both fell into a deep sleep.  At about five a.m., he woke up with a start. “And my poker buddy at the Bomb Squad thinks the bomb was made by an amateur, using old chemicals,” he'd told Rachel, and saying that had set off a ticking clock in his addled brain. 

   Suddenly, like a sunbeam breaking through the clouds, it came to him. A Russian – Petrov, Petrovsky? – who had tried to steal 100 million bucks from the City of Beverly Hills by threatening to blow up several big stores unless he got his money. This was when? The 1950's? Rosoff wasn't on the job yet, which was why he hadn't picked up on the old chemicals.

   Al scratched around to find out what else he remembered. The Russky, whatever his name was, had been caught as he tried to pick up his loot. Zymer had vague memories of his trial; he testified as the arresting officer. Where was Petrov now? Nothing came to mind. This was obviously another job for his new assistant – who certainly deserved a salary as soon as Castle's money began to flow...


    Ivan Davis, a lanky Brit who had worked for the London Express for 30 years before he got fed up with print journalism,  was doing a piece for his blog when his cellphone rang. He didn't recognize the incoming number.

   “Ivan? It's Al Zymer. Howya doing, my old mate? Lost any marbles since we last spoke?”

    Davis chuckled. “You should talk. They named the disease after you. Anyway, my mind is as sharp as ever. What's up with you?”

   “I just got a case which involves a guy who's in the Witness Protection Program in Ventura. Does the name Manny LaMancha ring a bell?”

   “Absolutely!” Ivan replied. “He's a city councilman, and he owns the Primrose Racquet Club, a fancy health place near the ocean. I also know that he and Conner Kevins have turned  an old bank downtown into a fancy restaurant called The Waterworks. But I never heard about any Witness Protection action. Then again, I've always thought that Ventura was prime territory for the program.”

   Davis was working as a part time private eye and also as an online crime bookseller – his site was called Blog Me Dead. “Maybe you and I should have a meal at The Waterworks. I hear it's pricey – are you on an expense account?”

  “Yeah, my client says anything goes,” Al replied. It was a lie, but he'd work it out.

Copyright © 2010 by Dick Adler

(To be continued next Monday, October 3rd).


September 20th, 2010

(To catch up, see Installments One and Two below. And, to make catching up easier, all the archives are now up on their own site -- in order of appearance.)


It took Zymer an hour to get to Woodland Hills, and not because of the traffic. He missed his freeway exit the first time and had to circle back, something he'd never done before. “Maybe I'd better let the kid drive,” he thought to himself.

Al had driven ever since he was 12, first with his father on the back roads of the Valley, and then as one of the few teenagers at Hollywood High who had their own cars, and the thought of not being able to trust himself behind the wheel scared the shit out of him.

The Motion Picture Home sat like a rich old lady on a hill at the end of a road decorated with luxuriant palm trees. Like the residents, the building and trees were paid for by the movie industry, and every service was provided free by regular donations. Al knew old cinematographers, stuntmen, makeup artists and editors who were lucky enough to get in.

He had come to see Rachel Donner, a still-lovely English actress whose star had burned brightest in the days when the British Colony was a major force in the film industry. She had done Shakespeare with Olivier, horror with Karloff, drawing room comedy with the lordly C. Aubrey Smith, who occasionally took time away from his beloved cricket to make a movie. Then she played people's mothers or elderly aunts until she got the message and honorably retired.

Rachel had never married, although many moguls vowed eternal devotion. She and Al had had a short fling many years before, when he was 30 and she was 40. Now they sat around her room, drinking tea and talking of the past. The last time they'd met, six months before, she had helped him out on a case by reminding him of details about a studio boss which had slipped out of his own memory.

“She's a bit down today,” said the nurse who led him out to the garden, with chairs set up around a bubbling fountain. Al saw Rachel before she saw him, and the first thing he noticed was her robe – not the good one she usually wore, bright with flowers, but a grey and apparently food-stained one supplied by the home. “Can't somebody get her a clean robe?” he said to the nurse, but she was already gone.

Then Rachel turned toward the sound of his voice, and Al realized that many things had changed since his last visit. Her eyes, always bright with life and ideas, were blank now. She stared at him without recognition.

“Rachel, it's me. Al. Sorry I haven't been out to see you, but ....” He stopped as she turned away, looking again at the bubbling fountain. He forced himself to continue, trying to keep the sadness out of his voice. “How are you doing, my dear old girl? Are they giving you everything you want?”

Rachel stared at him with eyes as empty as a dry well.

“Wait till you hear about the new case I just got,” Al said. “Remember Jon Castle, the over-priced shirt peddler across from my office? Well, somebody hit his store with a bomb!” There was no reaction from Rachel, but at least she didn't turn back to the fountain.

“And my poker buddy at the bomb squad thinks the bomb was made by an amateur, using old chemicals.” Saying that out loud tickled something at the back of Zymer's mind. Wasn't there an old case with the same connection? Nothing leaped out immediately, but at least he'd scratched some new ground, maybe even planted a seed...

“And another thing,” he went on doggedly. “My old partner Lou said he had a tip that the body we watched being planted at Woodlawn wasn't Tina Carone at all...”

Suddenly Rachel's eyes flashed and she began to babble “Tina Tina Tina Tina...” like a stuck record. What was she trying to say?

“What about Tina, Rache? Did you know her?” But she continued to babble Tina's name. Then she stopped, and what could have passed for lucidity lit up her face. “Manny,” she said clearly.

“Manny? Manny who? Zalheim? LaMancha?”

Rachel nodded. “Manny LaMancha,” she said. Then her eyes flooded with tears, rolled back in her head and she was lost again.

Al remembered Manny LaMancha, all right – a medium-grade hoodlum who decided to blow the whistle on his mob bosses in Hollywood in return for a seat on the Witness Protection bus. Where had he been relocated? Nothing came to his mind, but it sounded like a good job for his new assistant.

Copyright © 2010 by Dick Adler

(To be continued next Monday, September 27th)


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Got Enough To Read?

Got Enough To Read?
Friday, September 17th, 2010

One of my favorite blogs, Boing Boing, had this great offering from a reader yesterday -- a giant library desk made of nothing but books...

The reader says about it: "Books are reused to create this enormous piece of library furniture at TU Delft Architecture Bibliotheek. Because the books are stacked rather than dismantled, this desk is true to its origins as well as its function."

While I have your attention, Installment Three of my serial novel FORGET ABOUT IT goes live on Monday, Sept. 20th. Here's a wordle I made for it:


Monday, September 13th, 2010

(To catch up, see Chapter One below)


I went home and “doodled” (for some reason, I just couldn't get the senile geezer's mistake out of my head) for an hour and went through half a pack of Suzie's Gauloises as I searched for the dirt on Jon Castle in the darker reaches of the Internet. Nothing much: stories of the former second-rate character actor's rise to fame as an overpriced clothier; some rumors in unmoderated chatrooms about his links to Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen; occasional liasons with name actresses – Ava Gardner, Shelley Winters, Lana Turner among them.

Then I did what I should have done much earlier. I typed in “Al Zymer” and waited until the search ground to a halt. The listings started with a “What Ever Happened To?” piece ten years ago in the Los Angeles Times, talking about Zymer as though he was dead. It did give me a major clue: the words “former LAPD detective” leaped from the screen.

I found the details in a 1973 Herald-Examiner column by Jim Bacon: “Rumor has it that LAPD hotshot detective Al Zymer -- the man who broke the Katie Troncoso murder case two years ago -- has been forced to resign or face department charges of misconduct in that investigation. Zymer, 41, has been with the cop shop for 15 years, and everyone I know thinks he's a swell guy...”

A search for “Katie Troncoso” came up blank, as did further clicks on Zymer's name.

“Verrrrry interesting,” I grunted to myself. “Maybe I'll take this job after all....”


“Why should I give you anything, especially for free?” Capt. Brian Rosoff asked Al when he called. “Besides, you still owe me a century from our last poker game.”

“Yeah, yeah. I'll have it ready to stuff into your uniform pocket the way you cops like,” Zymer replied. “I'll take it out of my first check from Castle.”

“Is he gonna pay to get your phone plugged back in? I see you're calling from some other number in that building.”

That was the trouble with trying to work with the cops these days, Al thought. In his years on the force, they didn't have electronic caller i.d. gadgets or computers – just legs, muscle and the occasional payoff. And brains, of course – at least the good ones, like Rosoff. He wondered if Brian was losing any of his. Probably not yet – he was a lot younger than Zymer.

“There will be money for everybody, once I show Jon I can still put things together better than your mob. So, anything you'd like to share, for old time's sake?” Al deliberately underlined “share,” to let his friend know he was having him on.

“Yeah, we did have some times, back when you were hot shit. Remember when Vito Pantelli tried to get Harry Cohn to pay him ten mill not to blow up the Columbia lot?”

Al shifted through some shadowy memories, but came up empty. “That was then, this is now – at least I think it is. Was Castle's a pro job?”

“Too early to be sure. Some things point to that, but others are very strange – as though the blaster was using old or foreign chemicals. I'll keep you posted. And be sure to bring my hundred bucks to our next game. I got my eye on some fine ropes from the J. R. Cigars online site.”

Al sat there, stewing about his own failing mental powers. Who in hell was Vito Pantelli? If Rosoff could remember that case so easily, why couldn't he? His angry reverie was jolted by the chirping of Art Secunda's phone. Should he answer it, or let it ring until what they called “verse mail” kicked in? (He had never heard any poetry on it, but what the hell).

“Al, are you there? Brian just gave me this number. It's Lou. Pick up if you're there.”

Zymer knew that raspy voice, had listened to it groan on and on for a dozen years. His old partner, Lou Gabriel. “Lou? Yeah, I'm here. Howya doin'?”

“I'm good. Sitting out my last three months before the eagle shits. Brian told me you were okay, still working.”

“Yeah, you don't get any dough for being fired. Family okay?"

“Guess you didn't hear. Lorraine died on me, five years ago.”

“Shit, Lou, I'm very sorry.” Lorraine, he vaguely remembered, was a pain in the ass who made a great pot roast.

“Yeah, well... But my kids still call. Keith is at some art school in New York, teaching and painting stuff that looks like an accident to me, but people buy it. And Thelma lives in San Francisco, working as a traffic cop. She just married a criminal defense lawyer, believe it or not.”

“That's nice,” Al said. Nice? His brain must really be shot. “Well, I gotta make a couple of calls...”

“Al, you remember Tina Carone?”

That name he'd never forget. His last case before the fucks dropped the hammer. She was a waitress in an expensive fish place in Malibu, and her body had been washed up on the beach below it.

“What about her?”

“I got a call yesterday from some weirdo in Arizona who says he knows where she's buried.”

“So what? Everybody knows. You and I saw her go under at Woodlawn.”

“Sure. But Al, this guy says the casket we watched had somebody else's body in it.”

Copyright © 2010 by Dick Adler


And Away We Go: A Novel in Weekly Installments

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Meet Al Zymer -- a former LAPD detective now a private eye, who might have early-stage Alzheimer's or who might just be doing a bad Columbo imitation. Hired by a Beverly Hills clothing store owner to find out who bombed his expensive shop, Al and his young assistant take off for the city of Ventura, where a mobster named Manny La Mancha -- a dangerous man to cross -- is hiding out in the Witness Protection Program.


The First Al Zymer Senile Detective Mystery

By Dick Adler

Al Zymer sat at his desk in the Writers and Artists Building on Little Santa Monica. He slumped in his worn and greasy leather chair, sound asleep. A half-smoked 60 cent Dutch cigar had fallen from his lips, narrowly missing his crotch and landing on the rug, where it had fizzled out like its owner without doing much damage.

He was dreaming about one of his old cases, the one where an actress named Toots McAllister had hired him to find out who was sending her threatening letters and following her around the Paramount lot. It turned out to be her former girlfriend, a costume designer who was known to give great head. Now he was ready to collect his fee...

Suddenly, a roscoe barked "Kachow!" Was this a part of Al's dream, or had it really happened?

“Is that your real name?”

Somebody had managed to bypass Effie and get into his inner office. He smiled to himself; there was no Effie. He must still be dreaming.

“I said, is that your real name? Or are you making some kind of perverse joke?”

The voice – high and somewhat squeaky – jolted Al out of his reverie. “Sure,” he muttered. “Al from Albrecht, Zymer from Zimmermann. Believe it or not, some folks in this town don't like Jews – even German Jews. What's your name?”

“Haven't you ever heard of the disease?” persisted the very young, very thin, very pale man who resembled a pipe cleaner as he pointed to the sign on the door: AL ZYMER INVESTIGATIONS.

“I heard about it, but I forget where,” Al said, waiting to see if the youngster got the joke. The truth was that he did have trouble remembering things these days – at least while he was awake. “Once again, who the hell are you?”

“Saul Kearney. I think Arthur Secunda down the hall might have mentioned me to you?” The look on Kearney's face had doubt written all over it.

“Secunda? Oh yeah, the photographer.” Al had in fact known Art and his brother Gene, sons of the great Yiddish theatre composer Sholem Secunda, for 40 years, but he was still playing with this boy. He kicked it around in his head for a while, then vaguely recalled Art saying something about a kid who wanted to work as a private dick so that he could write crime novels. “I hope you have a private income,” Al said. “As you might have noticed, business isn't exactly booming...”

Exactly on cue, a loud blast from somewhere down the street rattled the building's old bones. Al creaked out of his chair and went to the window. A crowd had gathered outside the men's clothing store on the corner, the place where movie and TV stars spent $200 on shirts.

“You're in luck,” Al said. “This could be your first paying job. Help me into the elevator. Let's see what's going on at Castle's.”

Saul was about to complain that he hadn't signed on yet, certainly not as a nurse, but thought better of it. And once the old fart was standing up, his pronged cane in one hand, he seemed to be able to hobble out the door.

The crowd outside Castle's looked like upscale looters, and several Beverly Hills cops had to hold them back. A very well-dressed man in his 60s, complete with a cream-colored Ascot around his neck to hide his wattles, spotted Al. “I was just going to call you. Did you sleep through the blast?”

“My new assistant and I were getting acquainted. What the hell you been doing, Jon? Pissing off the Russian Mafia?”

“The Ivans prefer the glitzy Italian stuff,” said Castle. “They think the Ivy League is a football association. So, are you still in business?”

“You bet your cashmere blazer I am. You and I have dealt with heavies a lot worse than the Ivans in our time. But don't you trust the bomb squad to handle this?”

“Let's say I'd rather have my own man on it,” Castle answered. “Your fee still the same?”

“Sure – if you're still charging sixty bucks for shirts like you did in Clark Gable's day. But I'm certain we can agree on a figure. And don't forget I've got my new assistant to look after. What was your name again, kid?”


They were sitting in a little coffee shop on Rodeo into which tourists seldom wandered. Saul, who had hoped for a giant corned beef sandwich at Nate 'n' Al's when Zymer suggested lunch, silently cursed his new employer as a cheap bastard. But his turkey BLT club sandwich was fresh and crisp and not half bad.

“Let's see what we got,” Al said, pulling out a toothmarked yellow pencil as he began to scratch some notes on a paper napkin. “First question: what kind of bomb was it, and where was it placed? We know that and it should tell us if the bombers were pros. I play poker with the head of the LAPD bomb squad – maybe he can be persuaded to part with some details if I pay him the C-note I owe him. Meanwhile, you can get your computer up and searching the way you kids do, see if this matches anything on Doodle.”

Saul realized that he and the fart hadn't yet discussed payment for him. No matter – he wouldn't be around long enough to bother. “I think you mean Google,” he said.

“That's the one. You got a computer at home? Where is home, anyway?”

“I live in Santa Monica, and I do have a Mac laptop,” Kearney answered. “I even have a car – a graduation present from my family. So, what exactly am I looking for?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn't need you, would I? Okay, I'm going back to the office to use Art's phone. You drive your cute little Penis – is that what those gasless babies are called? -- out to Santa Monica and start clicking. Give me your phone number in case I get a hot idea. My phone isn't working: I owe one of Ma Bell's bastard children too much. Let's meet again at the office at noon tomorrow.”

Saul watched in awe and fear as Zymer wrote down the cellphone number he'd given him on the napkin, then drop the napkin full of notes on the table as he lurched out. Kearney started to shout after him, then decided against it. “He's probably deaf, too,” he muttered as he stuck the napkin carefully into his pocket.

Copyright © 2010 by Dick Adler


How Gutenberg Invented the Paperback

Friday, August 20, 2010

Anyone who revels in books will enjoy this tremendous new history of what people (as opposed to collectors) where buying and reading in 16th Century Europe.

Explaining how the age of the Internet has finally made it possible to write his book, Prof. Andrew Pettegree -- Head of the School of History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland -- says, "The more mundane productions of the press inevitably attracted less attention and admiration. But such books -- almanacs and calendars, prayer books and pamphlets -- were the bedrock of the new industry. They also offer the most eloquent window into the thought world of the sixteenth century's new generation of readers… Tracing the sole surviving copies of these little books had been an almost impossible task. Now though, the sudden proliferation of online resources, catalogues and search engines allows us to gather together a vast amount of data… This book represents a first attempt to take advantage of these global searches."

As reviewer Bryce Christensen says in his starred review in Booklist, "Looking back on her early adulthood, St. Teresa of Avila remarked, 'If I did not have a new book, I did not feel that I could be happy.' In this history of the pioneering publishers who transformed Gutenberg's new technology into an epoch-making force, Pettegree recounts the fascinating story of how new books found their way into the hands of Renaissance readers such as St. Teresa. That force, as readers soon realize, reshaped the world of learning, as affordable books swelled enrollment in universities and multiplied municipal schools. But the force of the printed word emerged far from the classroom, as printing presses become potent weapons in political and ecclesiastical conflicts... Though readers gain considerable understanding of technical processes of publishing...what they come to see most clearly is the tense political and economic circumstances in which Renaissance publishers operated..."


Sunday, August 15th

Here's a full list of contributors, from one of my favorite Brits, Martin Edwards:

"I've had the pleasure of contributing short stories to a number of anthologies edited by the prolific (and hugely knowledgable) Maxim Jakubowski, but the first piece I ever wrote for one of his books was a little essay for a non-fiction volume he edited. This compilation was called 100 GREAT DETECTIVES (my piece featured Cyril Hare's Francis Pettigrew).

"More recently, I've written a couple of essays to feature in one of his latest projects, another factual book about locations associated with great detectives. The book is due to appear in the autumn and I'm very much looking forward to reading the entries from a range of very well-informed commentators.

• Boston: Michael Carlson
• Brighton: Barry Forshaw
• Chicago: Dick Adler and Maxim Jakubowski
• Dublin: Declan Burke
• Edinburgh: Barry Forshaw
• Florida: Oline Cogdill
• Iceland: Peter Rozovsky
• London: David Stuart Davies
• Los Angeles: Maxim Jakubowski
• New Orleans: Maxim Jakubowski
• New York City: Sarah Weinman
• Nottingham: John Harvey
• Oxford: Martin Edwards
• Paris: Barry Forshaw
• San Francisco: J. Kingston Pierce
• Shropshire: Martin Edwards
• Sicily: Peter Rozovsky
• Southern California: Michael Carlson
• Sweden: Barry Forshaw
• Venice: Barry Forshaw
• Washington, D.C.: Sarah Weinman

We're Being Followed

We're Being Followed
Friday, August 13, 2010

Any day now, a very interesting book put together by the multi-talented editor, publisher and writer Maxim Jakubowsky called FOLLOWING THE DETECTIVES will go on sale -- first in Britain, through New Holland Publishers, and then hopefully in the US of A.

According to Sarah Weinman, who should know, all the usual suspects have been rounded up -- like me, who on her recommendation got to write about Chicago in this combined travel and crime history volume, plus Barry Forshaw, Peter Rozovsky, J. Kingston Pierce and Oline Cogdill. Says the Divine Sarah, "I've contributed two pieces: New York as filtered through the work of Lawrence Block, and George Pelecanos's Washington, DC."

I know what I'm giving everybody for the upcoming holidays...

Happy 25th, LA Opera

Happy 25th, LA Opera
I was delighted to see in today's Los Angeles Times a celebration of the LA Opera's upcoming season -- its 25th. And even more delighted to see that Grant Gershon was conducting the world premiere of IL POSTINO by Daniel Catan.

Gershon (above) was the first accompanist of the Verdi Chorus when we began at the much-missed Verdi Ristorante di Musica in Santa Monica in the 1980s. And the first piece I wrote on the LA Opera was about being backstage during Placido Domingo's first season opener, OTELLO

John Keats said it best in ODE ON A GRECIAN URN: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter."

Breaking Very Bad

Breaking Very Bad
Bryan Cranston as Walter White
Friday, August 6, 2010

It's not often that you get to play a part in your favorite TV show, but here I is:

You too can play a role on AMC's BREAKING BAD. Just click on

Season Four begins soon.

Posted by dick adler at 1:32 PM


Sunday, August 1, 2010

The multi-talented Jeff Pierce at The Rap Sheet has some fun today with a website called Wordle, which takes words from your blog or your brain (no difference in my case) and scrambles them into art. Here's what my two main blogs look like in the Wordle Gallery:

Posted by dick adler at 2:08 PM

A Tribute to Frederik Pohl

Before crime fiction grabbed me by the lapels in my late 20s, I was a dedicated reader of science fiction: Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Philip Jose Farmer, Algis Budrys -- and of course the Grand Master, Frederik Pohl.

Pohl wrote many books (THE SPACE MERCHANTS is probably his best known) and hundreds of stories -- every one a gem. Now in his 90th year, and despite some recent health concerns, he is still hard at work. As a tribute to his career and their long marriage, his much-younger wife -- science fiction expert Elizabeth Anne Hull -- has put together a unique new book called GATEWAYS, coming from Tor/Tom Doherty in October.

"Fred and I were cruising in the South Pacific in January 2009," she writes, "when I conceived the project that would become this tribute to my husband for his ninetieth year, marking his career in the world of science fiction -- as a fan and as a professional writer, first and foremost, but also as an agent and editor of both magazines and books."

Brian W. Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Mike Resnick, Frank Robinson, Vernor Vinge, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Ben Bova, David Brin, Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, Joe Haldeman, Larry Niven and Gene Wolfe are the stars of the genre who have been recruited for this wonderful new collection. Each author has written a story that he feels reflects the effect Pohl has had on the field—in the style of writing, the narrative tone, or the subject matter. There also some heartfelt appreciations by Asimov (from his autobiography, I, ASIMOV), Robert J. Sawyer, Connie Willis and Robert Silverberg.

The stories start with SHORESTEADING, by David Brin, set in a future version of China after what sounds like a nuclear war, where a young man scrabbling to survive by illegal fishing and collecting sunken metal waste lives in Old Shanghai in a battered, deserted house which was once the beachfront mansion of a wealthy export magnate and gazes out on New Shanghai. ("Much more lively than Old Shanghai, with its lingering afterglow from Awfulday." he thinks,) and end with SAFARI, by Mike Resnick, in which a couple of real estate salesmen in some unspecified future win a safari on a distant planet called Selous, where a talking safari car named Quartermain is their only guide.

If science fiction was ever your main squeeze and Pohl your personal deity, this is a must-read.

See the book, read the movie

Here's a very intriguing double feature. If you missed Stephen King's 2004 ghost train thriller RIDING THE BULLET -- or even if you read it -- the inventive Lonely Road Books has put together a special double edition which includes King's novella and a new screenplay based on it by Mick Garris.

Even though my advance copy doesn't include the two-color printing mentioned by Lonely Road (and Cemetery Dance) publisher Brian Freeman in his cover letter, it does have the terrific wraparound cover art by Alan M. Clark.

But for anyone who has ever wrestled with a screenplay, the most interesting parts of the package are the storyboards, set photos, production notes and hand-corrected script pages from director Garris's notebook.

The complete book, one of those turn-it-over twin items which the old Ace Doubles pioneered (and which Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime recently resurrected) comes out in October. It's priced at $75, but should certainly make any crime and film buff's Christmas Day. (And I see that is offering it for $47.25)

I write like Jack London!

I write like Jack London!
Very nice item leads off today's JACKET COPY book blog, written by Carolyn Kellogg. "Are your characters as snazzy as James Bond? Are your sentences as lyrical as those in "Lolita"? Pop a few paragraphs into the website I Write Like to find out."

Well, I sent in two paragraphs from my work-in-progress, FORGET ABOUT IT: The First Al Zymer Senile Detective Mystery, and got this reply: YOU WRITE LIKE JACK LONDON.

How did the computer know that Jack is one of my idols?

Blood and Wine

When two top food and wine authorities (Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain) join two prominent writers (Jim Harrison and Jonathan Raban) in praise of a debut mystery, it must be something special. DEAD IN THE DREGS, by Seattle-based restaurateur Peter Lewis of Campagne fame, just out from Counterpoint, lives up to its jacket blurbs in spades.

Lewis's hero, Babe Stern, was once a rising young star of the wine industry in and around Napa. Now he's retired from wine-growing, and runs a bar and grill called Pancho's. "If I'd thought of the wine scene as silly before," he says to himself while reading an industry journal, "by now it was ridiculous… lifestyle was the new thing: wine country decor, wine country entertaining, wine country markets, wine country bistros. I was reminded why I'd quit the game and congratulated myself, even if it had been a downwardly mobile slide."

But when an acerbic and powerful wine critic named Richard Wilson disappears after a tasting at Napa Valley’s Norton Winery, his sister Janie looks to her ex-husband Babe for help. She is worried because so many people hated her brother. " 'They don't hate him. They're afraid of him,' " Stern tells her. But he knows that "Wilson could make or break a wine, make or break a fortune, there had to be at least a dozen people who would happily stuff his face in a barrel, and that was just between Napa and Sonoma…"

Then Wilson’s body is found floating in a vat at Norton, and Babe’s search turns into a hunt for the killer. Warned off by the police but desperate to please his ex-wife, Stern digs further and finds himself following his only lead, to Burgundy in France. In cellars and tasting rooms from Beaune to Nuits-Saint-Georges, Babe tracks the troubled son of a family of vignerons, one of the few people in the winery the night Wilson died. But the wine families of the Côte d’Or are secretive and entangled, and the further Stern goes to discover the truth, the more he becomes their ultimate target.

Lewis's love for the California wine country comes across strongly throughout his gripping book -- hopefully the start of a series. "I decided to take the long route home," Babe tells us. "I wanted to soak in the air, the light. With harvest nearing completion, the vineyards looked skeletal, their leaves golden and browned. I took the Rutherford Cross past the Silverado Trail and followed Sage Canyon Road around Lake Hennessey… The sun played on the hills as I cut through to Pope Valley. The farms were peaceful here, and its tranquility seemed a world away from the monstrous egos and petty vendettas that gripped Napa."

There's also an occasional zing of humor which any wine-loving mystery reader should appreciate. "Delicious," says Babe, tasting a famous but overpriced vintage (paid for by his dinner host). "It had been a while since I had tasted this caliber of French juice. The scent of violets rose to my nostrils... the flavors unfurled on my tongue. All the pretentious vocabulary came flooding back and suddenly seemed perfectly appropriate: sweetly roasted game laced with black cherries and chocolate."

More, please, Mr. Lewis.

Let He Who Is Without an Agent Cast the First Actor

I wrote last week about the subtitled Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which just opened in New York. As sure as there’s a Scott Rudin in heaven, somebody is already casting the Hollywood version of this picture. But who could possibly be as good as Nooni Rapace was in the role of Lisbeth Salander? Or as fine as Michael Nyquist was at playing her supporter and lover, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist? Or as excellent as the great Swedish actor Sven-Bertil Taub, who portrays Heinrich Vanger, the man who gets this whole story rolling?

Well, here’s your chance to choose your favorite actors for the American version of Dragon Tattoo. Click the Comments tab at the end of this post to tell us who should star. How about Beyonce as Salander, Jeff Bridges as Blomkvist, and Kris Kristofferson as Vanger?

"Tattoo" Nails It

Through methods too devious to mention, I just saw the subtitled Swedish version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, the first of the late Steig Larsson's Millenium Trilogy.

In a word, terrific. Perfect casting from start to finish, especially the scary, gorgeous Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). Michael Nyqvist as the crusading journalist Michael Blomkist is also excellent, as are all the ghosts and villains.

No spoilers here: It should be available from Netflix any day now. See it. You'll love it.

Cozies Uber Alles

I've been accused of not spending enough time on so-called "cozies" -- gentler mysteries more gris than noir. Mea culpa. (Remember her?) Here are two recent excellent examples:

SCARY STUFF, by Sharon Fiffer  (Minotaur Books)

It's called The Reviewer's Curse, and it has happened to me several times. A critic goes nuts about a first novel -- and the writer either slides into a steep decline or falls off the page entirely. So when I said about Sharon Fiffer's 2001 debut mystery, Killer Stuff, "This one's a keeper," I had all digits crossed.

Fortunately, the Curse was out to lunch. Six books later, Fiffer's Jane Wheel -- collector of weird old stuff and crime solver of surprising skills -- is better than ever. Best of all, her writing mixes great humor and unique insights with a powerful narrative engine.

Early in Scary Stuff, Fiffer reminds us that "Jane collected Bakelite, buttons, sewing tools, measuring tapes, yardsticks, cigar boxes, flower frogs, anything with letters and numbers..." When her shrewd, stamp-collecting niece asks her aunt why he doesn't go in for stamps or coins, Jane says, "I never collect anything that I actually might make money on... I only accept poor stuff, old throwaways and castoffs."

One of the most intriguing features of Fiffer's Wheel books is the way she gives Jane an instantly- believable background. Jane and her younger brother, Michael, were raised in Kankakee, IL., where their parents, Don and Nellie, own and run a bar and grill called the EZ Way Inn.  Jane got as far from home as Evanston, but Michael made it all the way to Los Angeles. Finding a box of Michael's old baseball cards at his California home, Jane remembers Nellie threatening to throw them away, and is baffled. "Every mother threw away her son's baseball cards. It was the rule...," she thinks.

It is this visit to her brother, her first in two years, that plunges Jane into the mystery part of her book. Michael tells her that on three occasions, someone has accused him of fraud on EBay -- only to realize later that it wasn't him. Then, back in Kankakee, one of Don and Nellie's close friends is attacked. Jane and her detecting partner, a former cop called Oh, work hard to tie everything up in a package that is definitely a keeper.

DOUBLEBACK, by Libby Fischer Hellmann (Bleak House)

Not at all a cozy, Hellman's new book is one tough cookie. When I think of Libby Fischer Hellmann, her two excellent series come to mind: the longer one about video producer and single mother Ellie Foreman, and the newer one about ex-Chicago cop turned private investigator Georgia Davis. (Hellmann also edited and contributed to Chicago Blues, a wonderful collection of stories about the city and its musical heritage, which should be on everyone's shelf.)

Now Hellmann has combined her two chief characters into one strong and moving novel. Other writers have done this before: Michael Connelly merged his LAPD veteran Harry Bosch with his fascinating Mickey Haller, a lawyer who does business from his Lincoln Town Car. But with Doubleback, Hellmann proves she can stand up to peer pressure.

When she gets a call from her best friend, Susan, asking for her help in finding a missing eight-year-old girl, Ellie's first reaction is stay out of it. "Over the past several years," she tells us, "I've had several encounters with the dark side of human nature. I don't look for it, and don't much like it. I prefer a boring, normal life. But then Rachel is my daughter, Jake Foreman is my father, and Luke Sutton is my boyfriend. Normal is not an option."

She decides to pass the problem to Davis -- a tough, competent private eye she has worked with before.  "Foreman was the kind of woman who seemed to attract trouble; it was a small miracle she was still alive," Georgia says when Ellie calls. The case appears to be a lose-lose situation: the girl's mother, Chris, has been warned not to tell the police, and she was just involved in a nasty divorce case and is worried about losing custody. "Being a good PI meant knowing when to take on a case and when to hand it off," Davis says. "This one practically screamed 'hands off' "

The little girl is returned safely three days later. But the plot darkens and thickens when Chris, the IT manager at a large Chicago bank, may have misappropriated three million dollars. Not convinced that his daughter is safe, Molly's father hires PI Georgia Davis to follow the money.

Hellmann has done such a good job of bringing her dual principals to vivid life that you believe every word of it.



THE HIDDEN MAN, by David Ellis (Putnam; $25.95)

If you've just been the prosecutor who hung Rod Blagojevich out to dry, what do you do for an encore? If you're David Ellis, you write your best legal thriller yet – creating a new series hero who should be around for a long time.

Jason Kolarich, a Chicago criminal defense lawyer easing the pain of a personal tragedy by taking on no-brainer cases and drinking himself into a stupor most nights, has come down in the world. A college football star, he was smart enough to land a good job with one of Chicago's most prestigious firms after serving as a county prosecutor. Fame and fortune shined down after he second-chaired the defense of a sitting state senator charged by the Feds with extortion and taking bribes, and helped get him off.

Then came his tragedy, which tore him apart. “I'd been back on my feet for six months, and I'd gotten some good results for some clients,” he tells us. Kolarich's nightmare – which so quickly and naturally becomes the reader's that you'll be amazed and frightened in equal measures – begins when a man calling himself Smith (“From the moment my assistant Marie showed him in, he felt wrong... His hand was moist when I shook it, and he didn't make eye contact”) offers him a very large retainer to defend Sammy Cutler, Jason's closest boyhood friend, whom he hasn't seen in 20 years – on a murder charge. Cutler's baby sister, Audrey, was stolen from her bed when Sammy was seven. Now, he has been accused of killing the sexual predator who everybody believes was the child's abductor, and wants his old friend Jason to get him off. The case “would require dedication, consistency, and full work days,” Kolarich says – knowing that the price of screwing it up would be his old friend spending his life in jail.

It gets even more harrowing when Jason begins to get threats of violence from Smith and his employer, known only as “Carlo” – chiefly against his younger brother, Pete, the only surviving member of the Kolarich clan whom Jason loves. When Pete is charged with selling guns and a large amount of cocaine, he insists to his brother that he was set up.

Kolarich believes him, but now has to work his mind and body through some dangerous moments. Again, Ellis lays it all out in cool, understated pages that grab you by the throat. And the ending will knock your socks off.

Did I mention that he also writes about trials and all things legal with the same expertise he's been guilty of for six books?

Parker Handles Heavy Iron

In L.A. Outlaws, T. Jefferson Parker introduced Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy Charlie Hood, sent up to the Antelope Valley after some bad behavior. In The Renegades, Hood was wrapped up in a major case of police corruption. Now, in the absolutely riveting Iron River, Hood is working with the ATFE (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) along the Mexican border, trying to slow the flow of illegal weapons into the U.S.

Few writers of any kind can match Parker's rare combination of dead-on characterization, narrative excitement and the kind of cool, poetic prose that grabs your attention and won't let go. In L.A. Outlaws, Hood tangled with (in all aspects of that phrase) a female bank robber who called herself Allison Murrietta, after a famous bandit who was an ancestor. She also taught school as Suzanne Jones.

Early in Iron River, Hood is searching through some sales records of a recently de-licensed Arizona gun dealer and comes across a listing for "a .40-caliber derringer for Allison Murrietta of Norwalk, California.

"Hood looked away and took a deep breath and let it out and looked back at the record. Allison Murrieta/Suzanne Jones. Take your pick. He recognized her bold handwriting. It conjured her voice and the shape of her face and the feel of her body and the taste of her breath. She had been shot with that derringer in her hand, not quite ready to use it against a boy. It was ivory-handled and beautifully tooled. Now it was Hood's gun, bequeathed wordlessly to Hood by Allison's son.

"Hood held the form and looked at her signature and in spite of everything he felt at this moment, he smiled."

A similar note is sounded near the book's end, as Hood watches through field glasses what appears to be very large gun deal going down, run by Allison's son. "In this young descendant of Joaquin Murietta, Hood saw outlaws dead and outlaws not yet born, and he also saw Suzanne, and even glimpsed something dark and tempting that he had long ago banished from himself..."

As I've said before, Parker is arguably the best Southern California crime writer now working, and his Charlie Hood is a fascinating creation. You can find Parker's treasure lode at Amazon.

Gorman Vs. The 1960s

He'll probably be pissed at me for saying it, but Ed Gorman is the tooth fairy of the mystery world -- dispensing not only wisdom but actual paying jobs. We have never met, but one day I got an e-mail from Ed. He had read a piece about Fredric Brown's The Fabulous Clipjoint which I'd written for the Chicago Tribune, and asked if I'd like to write the introduction to a new edition of Brown's Madball for a series he was putting together. A nice fee was mentioned. Madball was one of the first mysteries I ever read, and I would have written the introduction for nothing -- but I didn't tell Gorman that.

Aside from his kindness, Gorman is one of the best writers of mysteries of recent memory. His Sam McCain series, about a lawyer in Black Water Falls, Iowa in the 1960s, earned these glowing comments from Booklist: "...Sam McCain is cut from the same cloth as Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder and Bill Pronzini's "Nameless"-- series heroes who change as time passes. The sweet, nonviolent, naive young man we met in the series debut (The Day the Music Died, 1999) is now comfortable pistol-whipping a witness..."

Gorman also edits, along with Martin H. Greenberg, the annual Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year -- the most recent titled Between the Dark and the Daylight.

Now for the best part: his latest Sam McCain outing, TICKET TO RIDE, just published by Pegasus, is one terrific read. It's set in 1965, and the basically conservative townsfolk plan on burning Beatle, Rolling Stone and Bob Dylan records in front of a local church on Labor Day. And the first young soldier from Black River Falls returns home from a strange place called Viet Nam, in a coffin.

Ticket to Ride is a fascinating look at the war from both sides of smalltown America. Sam is very active in the anti-war movement, and when a rich and powerful warmonger is killed in a fistfight with a young radical, Sam is the only lawyer in town to have the guts and heart to take his case.

If you've missed any of the McCain series, you can rectify that by going to Gorman's page at

Caputo Comes Across

CROSSERS, by Philip Caputo

Early in Philip Caputo's complex and elegant new novel, we first meet Ben Erskine. It is 1903, and Ben -- "a boy just past the threshold of adolescence, tall for his age, as lean as one of the ocotillo wands that fence the yard" -- becomes the book's first crosser, riding his pinto Maggie across the border from his uncle's home in Arizona's San Rafael Valley to Nogales on a routine errand with a surprisingly violent ending. "The thunderstorm rolls on, passing to the west, while the sky overhead is clear. Nothing much has changed except Ben Erskine"

We have come to expect original history-based books from Caputo: His Vietnam memoir, A Rumor of War, is, as John Gregory Dunne wrote, "a dangerous and even subversive book, the first to insist — and the insistence is all the more powerful because it is implicit — that the reader ask himself these questions: How would I have acted? To what lengths would I have gone to survive?" And Acts of Faith, his novel set in the Sudan, also won high praise.

Crossers is in the same league, full of characters and events which start separately in various forms and in both past and present tense and which slowly begin to coalesce. After the loss of his wife on 9/11, Gil Castle leaves New York for his family's Arizona ranch, San Ignacio, overlooking the Mexican border. Gil's discovery of a Mexican illegal, left for dead after a border-crossing deal gone awry, soon merges the world of cattle and horses and operatic landscapes with the world of drug lords and coyotes and murder.

Caputo says that he at first intended to write two separate novels -- one past and one present. But then "I decided to fuse the two. At first, the historical story was going to be part one, the contemporary story was going to be part two; but that seemed too linear, too mechanical and schematic. It also violated the spirit of the book--I wanted to show that the past is never dead, that it constantly affects the present..."

Good choice. Great book.

Way To Go, Moynahan!

One of the best jobs I ever had was editing a London men's magazine called TOWN in the 1960s. It was in the Esquire tradition, was published by Clive Labovitch and Michael Heseltine (who later went on to become Deputy Prime Minister under Margaret Thatcher), and had a staff of talented if occasionally eccentric journalists, one of whom, Jane Wilson, wrote up a storm, the first of her many bonfires, and became my wife of 41 years.

Also on the editorial staff was a fearless reporter named Brian Moynahan, who went to such dangerous places as Vietnam and Cambodia in search of stories, and later moved from Town to the London Sunday Times (pre-Murdoch) and other prestigious journals.

I lost track of Brian when I returned to America, and always wondered how (and what) he was doing. Now comes word of what sounds like a tremendous success -- a new book called JUNGLE SOLDIER about Freddy Spencer Chapman, one of Britain's many World War II heroes. In 1941, Chapman was dispatched to Singapore to train British guerrillas for the coming war with Japan. Setting out from Kuala Lumpur in January, 1942 on a mission to sabotage Japanese supply lines, he became a veritable one-man army. The Japanese deployed 2,000 men to search for what they believed was a squad of 200 Australian guerrillas. Following Japan's invasion of Malaya and the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Chapman found himself stranded. Under these most desperate of circumstances, the man dubbed the "the jungle Lawrence" by Field Marshal Wavell showed his bloody-minded talent for survival. Relentlessly hunted by the Japanese army, he was afflicted by typhus, scabies, pneumonia, blackwater fever, cerebral malaria, dengue fever and ulcers before finally being rescued and evacuated to Ceylon on 13 May 1945. Chapman returned to Malaya by parachute in August to take the Japanese surrender at Penang.

The British reviews of Jungle Soldier have been ectastic. "Crisp, compelling biography... Moynahan has done a terrific job of turning Chapman's life into an elegant narrative. The adventures and achievements are so remarkable that his factual biography reads at times like a Victorian novel, where the central character suffers disaster after disaster ... perhaps this book will help win final recognition for a truly extraordinary man," said the Sunday Times. "Captures the amazing wartime exploits of Freddy Spencer Chapman," raved the Daily Express. "An extraordinary life ... For over three years in the Second World War, he blew up trains, bridges and enemy soldiers in the jungles of Malaya all the while studying birdlife and collecting seeds to send back to Kew Gardens ... Quite why Chapman hasn't found Lawrence of Arabia's fame is anyone's guess," wrote The Guardian. "Brian Moynahan's gripping book gives a fascinating insight into Chapman's upbringing," wrote the Daily Telegraph. And the Daily Mail summed it up: "This story of endurance in the fetid heat of the Malayan jungle is surely one of the most awe-inspiring of the whole war - a courageous and utterly English hero, a man whose extraordinary bravery and tenacity were an inspiration to all who observed him. Only now, with the publication of this biography, will Freddy Spencer Chapman win the recognition his memory deserves."

No American publication of Jungle Soldier appears to be under way, but perhaps those glowing reviews will move an enterprising company into action. Meanwhile, you can get a copy of the British edition (published by Quercus, the folks who discovered Steig Larsson) through And best wishes to you, Brian...

LAT Prize Winner Strikes Again

LAT Prize Winner Strikes Again
You might remember my glowing review of Michael Koryta's ENVY THE NIGHT -- a book which went on to win the L.A. Times Award for best mystery in 2008. "You can’t always tell a book by its cover blurbs, but the ones decorating ENVY THE NIGHT bear the crystal ring of truth and admiration," I said. "Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos are not often generous to a fault, but their recommendations of Koryta’s first standalone thriller -- after three books in his excellent series about Cleveland private eye Lincoln Perry -- might just make you rush out to obtain it, and then lock yourself in a room until you finish reading the thing."

Koryta’s Lincoln Perry books were wonderful slices of Midwestern noir (TONIGHT I SAID GOODBYE was an Edgar Award finalist). And now I've just finished reading his latest, SO COLD THE RIVER, and the glow has returned.

Koryta has ventured into Stephen King territory this time out, and seems to have been heavily influenced by THE SHINING. But his book is an homage, not a ripoff. Cinematographer Eric Shaw is back home in Chicago after a disappointing stint in Hollywood, surviving by shooting videos of weddings and parties.  A rich client offers him $20,000 to travel to the resort town of West Baden, Ind., (just down the road from Larry Byrd's hometown of French Lick), the childhood home of her dying father-in-law, Campbell Bradford, to shoot a video history of his life. She gives Eric an old bottle of Pluto Water, the once-famous mineral water of West Baden. The bottle is mysteriously cold and smells almost too bad to drink. But Shaw -- obviously forgetting the ALICE IN WONDERLAND message "Drink Me" which meant just the opposite -- takes a swig, and his troubles begin: headaches, weird visions from some forgotten past, the whole ball of whacko characters and events which make him start to doubt his sanity. A sudden flurry of leaves stirred by the wind changes into a roaring train and then to the haunting sound of a violin. And, like THE SHINING, SO COLD THE RIVER has a wonderful old hotel as its centerpiece.

"'So cold,' says the dying old man to Eric on their first meeting. "'What was?' "'The river.' "'What river are we talking about?' "Eric was staring into the man's face and unable to believe that any drama school on earth had ever produced a talent like this. He wasn't acting. He was lost in some frozen memory. One that terrified him."

Toward the end, a wonderful old weather watcher named Anne McKinney tells Shaw, "You're too worried about figuring out what you can believe about all off this, and then figuring out how to control it. That's how most people approach their lives. Way I feel, though, after a lot of years of living? Not much of what matters in the world is under your control… So stop trying to control this, and start listening to what it's telling you."

Excellent advice, in an equally excellent thriller. And judging by a preview of his next book, THE CYPRESS HOUSE, included in my Kindle version, Koryta plans to keep the ghost story alive.

Justin Cronin

Vampires Get A Makeover

I've never been a fan of vampire novels: FRANKENSTEIN was always my choice over DRACULA, and the only twilight I can stomach comes every evening. But reading some great reviews of THE PASSAGE, by Justin Cronin, made me decide to give it a nibble.

"Cronin is a remarkable storyteller (just ask adoring fans of his award-winning MARY AND O'NEIL), whose gorgeous writing brings depth and vitality to this ambitious epic about a virus that nearly destroys the world, and a six-year-old girl who holds the key to bringing it back. THE PASSAGE takes readers on a journey from the early days of the virus to the aftermath of the destruction, where packs of hungry infected scour the razed, charred cities looking for food, and the survivors eke out a bleak, brutal existence shadowed by fear," said's Daphne Durham.

And Dan Chaon, author of the wonderful AWAIT YOUR REPLY, wrote: "There is a particular kind of reading experience--the feeling you get when you can’t wait to find out what happens next... About three-quarters of the way through THE PASSAGE, I found myself in the grip of that peculiar and intense readerly emotion..."

Not that Cronin ever call his infected bloodsuckers vampires. They are sticks, jumps, virals, smokes and -- after they finally die -- slims, because of what becomes of their bodies.

His gift for creating believable, touching characters -- from criminals on Death Row to a heroic FBI agent named Brad Wolgast, and especially Amy, the six-year-old world savior -- are what makes his book so memorable.

After Wolgast is recruited by Gen. Sykes, a high-ranking Defense Dept. officer, into what has been called Project NOAH, "they shook, and Sykes walked him to the door... 'One last question,' Wolgast asked. 'Why Noah? What’s it stand for?'"

There is another military man in the room, Richards -- not in uniform. "Sykes glanced quickly at Richards. In that moment, Wolgast felt the balance of power shifting in the room; Sykes might have been technically in charge, but in some way, Wolgast felt certain, he also reported to Richards, who was probably the link between the military and whoever was really running the show: USAMRIID, Homeland, maybe NSA.

"Sykes turned back to Wolgast. 'It doesn’t stand for anything. Let’s put it this way. You ever read the Bible?' 'Some.' Wolgast looked at the both of them. 'When I was a kid. My mother was a Methodist.' Sykes allowed himself a second, final smile. 'Go look it up. The story of Noah and the ark. See how long he lived. That’s all I’ll say.'

"That night, back in his Denver apartment, Wolgast did as Sykes had said. He didn’t own a Bible, probably hadn’t laid eyes on one since his wedding day. But he found a concordance online. 'And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.' "

But if there is one scene which sums up the beauty and the emotional power of Cronin's creation, it comes when an African nun named Lacey takes Amy to the zoo. All the animals react strongly to the girl's presence, especially the bears.

"'They know,' Amy said, her hands still pressed to the glass. "'What do the bears know?' "The girl raised her face. Lacey was stunned; never had she seen such sadness in a child's expression. such knowing grief. And yet, as she searched Amy's eyes, she saw no fear. Whatever Amy had learned, she had accepted it. "'What I am,' she said."

If you are as mesmerized as I was when I finished THE PASSAGE -- all 800 pages -- and you also love Philip Jose Farmer's RIVERWORLD books, which Cronin has certainly read, you'll be glad to know that it's the first of a three-part series.

Furst Among Equals

So many crime novels have been written about WWII that I thought every possible aspect had been covered. Then, in 2001, I read Alan Furst's THE POLISH OFFICER, followed closely by 2002's NIGHT SOLDIERS, and I realized how little I knew about the war in Eastern Europe.

Furst's masterful new book, SPIES OF THE BALKANS, advances my education -- especially about how Greece in 1940, despite few allies and a multitude of enemies at home and abroad, managed to avoid the fate of so many Balkan countries.

In the northern port city of Salonika, Costa Zannis, a veteran police official and espionage agent, finds himself up to his neck as he tries to help Jews fleeing Nazi occupation. He also has to deal with a supposedly neutral but actually pro-German Greek government.

When Mussolini decides to launch an invasion of Greece to show Hitler that he isn't going to play second fiddle to anyone (The Fuerher was outraged), Zannis is recruited into the fight against Italy. As that invasion fizzles, Costa moves on to other Balkan countries, making contacts with guerilla leaders that will help him in his twin goals: saving Jewish emigrants as well as his own family by sneaking them into Turkey.

Costa's life is made bearable (at least at first) by a splendidly sexy English woman named Roxeanne Brown. The couple make plans to go to the movies (a Turkish Western called "Clyde Conquers Wyoming" is one night's choice), but instead go home to make love. "I prefer depravity," says Roxeanne, who has a "prim English voice" and wears white cotton panties.

SPIES OF THE BALKANS is already on my short list for Best Books of 2010.

Taking Sides

Although the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in 1968 is the focus of Hampton Sides' amazingly detailed new book, that happens less than halfway into it. Most of the book is about a man we first meet as Convict 416-J, about to escape from Jefferson City, Mo.'s tough prison in 1967 by hiding in a bread truck in a box of loaves he has himself baked.

That convict, of course, was James Earl Ray. We have learned a lot about Ray since his own death, in another jail in 1998. But Sides has gone well beyond what journalists and others -- as well as Ray himself -- have written. He has created a frightening, totally believable villain, who mixed delusions of grandeur with the worst kinds of anger and hatred into a poisonous, psychopathic broth.

The title comes from an MLK quote: "Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every working moment of their lives." But Sides shows his art and purpose by coupling that with an earlier quote from the doomed Blues musician Robert Johnson -- "There's a hellhound on my trail."

After killing King, Ray -- using the name Eric Galt -- fled to Southern California. "While Galt was living in Los Angeles, one other passion… absorbed much of his time," Sides tells us. "He became infatuated with the Wallace campaign."

Indeed, it was George Wallace's presidential run that whipped up Ray's own racist sensibilities against MLK. More hellhounds included J. Edgar Hoover and his band of obedient cronies.

Mixing black and white usually results in grey. But Sides has so much skill that his portraits of all concerned are memorably vivid.

No Birds, Many Bees

As large a fan as I am of Laurie R. King's two series -- the one starring Sherlock Holmes and his much younger wife Mary Russell, and her present-day cop series about Kate Martinelli -- I have to admit that TOUCHSTONE (2008) is my favorite King book of recent memory. In this standalone set in 1926, a main character is Bennett Grey, an amazing young man whose brush with death during WWI has heightened his sense of perception to the point that he's a kind of human lie detector: the touchstone of the title. Gray has become a recluse, until an American Bureau of Investigation agent comes to assess his potential as a weapon in a new kind of warfare.

There's a similar, equally fascinating character called Robert Goodman in THE GOD OF THE HIVE, King's latest Holmes-Russell story -- such a direct follow-up to last year's THE LANGUAGE OF THE BEES (which ended with the words "to be continued") that I recommend reading it first.

As King told, "Basically, I have a low threshold for boredom. For a series writer this can be a dangerous thing, since any series is to some extent the same people doing things similar to what they did before. Over the years, I’ve gotten around this by alternating one series with another, and tossing in the occasional standalone."

King went on: "… You think you know the characters? Well, how about a long-lost son for Sherlock Holmes -- and if that’s not enough, maybe give him a granddaughter as well? Then for the following year, take the ingredients of THE LANGUAGE OF THE BEES and change it from first person to multiple points of view, toss with a dash of modern espionage and a sprinkling of ancient British mythology, and pour them all out onto Westminster Bridge in the wee hours, and you have THE GOD OF THE HIVE."

HIVE'S plot picks up where LANGUAGE left off -- in the summer of 1924. A religious fanatic, Rev. Thomas Brothers, who seeks to unleash psychic energies through human sacrifice, has shot Holmes's artist son, Damian Adler, seriously wounding the young man. Holmes's desperate quest for medical help to save his son's life takes him to Holland, while Mary travels throughout Britain in an effort to keep Damian's half-Chinese daughter, Estelle, safe from Brothers and his allies -- including their leader, a devious diplomat who hates Mycroft Holmes...

And Robert Goodman, like Bennett Gray, proves that King has few equals as a creator of memorable characters.

Does Jack Reacher Live?

When I implied in my review of 61 HOURS that Jack Reacher seemed to be dead at the end, I forgot the amazing staying power of author Lee Child.

"Does Reacher survive the explosive ending of 61 HOURS? You bet your sweet bippy! Are we going to tell you anything more about the story of WORTH DYING FOR? Not yet we're not," says Rich's home page about the next Reacher book, due out in October.

Okay, Jack. But couldn't you at least have called the lovely Susan Turner in Virginia? Or is this new book about an earlier Reacher adventure?

Good News About Michael Harris

Good News About Michael Harris
You might remember Mike Harris for the sharp mystery reviews he did for the Los Angeles Times. Now comes word from our mutual friend John Shannon:

"Mike is doing pretty well with his writing. He's got a small publisher for his magnum opus -- THE CHIEU HOI SALOON: an anarchist outfit in SF called PM Press that Gary Phillips turned him on to (and is reissuing Gary's THE JOOK.)"

Who says the publishing industry is dead?

Shannon Triumphant

Shannon Triumphant
I mentioned below in my review of Gar Anthony Haywood's CEMETERY ROAD that John Shannon's Jack Liffey series has also been picked up by the British Severn House. Their first acquisition, ON THE NICKEL, arrives next month -- and it is one of the very best in this terrific series.

As Booklist raved last month in a starred review, "Previous episodes in Shannon's consistently engaging Jack Liffey series have moved about California, but this time the 'finder of lost children' stays put -- literally, at least in the beginning, as the trauma of being buried alive in a mudslide (PALOS VERDE BLUE, 2009) has left him without a voice and unable to use his legs (doctors feel the symptoms have a psychological basis). As in previous episodes, though, Jack's highschool-age daughter, Maeve, steps in to help her dad (without telling him, of course)..."

"You had no idea how much you relied on quick replies, or on inflection, modulation and nuance, until you lost voice itself," thinks Jack early in the book. "Irony in particular was important to him, and underlining words or putting quotes on a written phrase just didn’t cut it."

"L.A.’s Skid Row is known locally as The Nickel because its east–west axis is Fifth Street," Shannon writes, explaining the title and the book's main arena. "It’s a roughly fifty-block area of warehouses, missions and nondescript brick buildings that in the late afternoon finds itself literally in the shadow of the modern glass-and-steel eighty-story skyline on Bunker Hill half a mile west. The Nickel has the largest concentration of homeless people in the United States: between 8,000 and 11,000 souls live here, many of them scrambling nightly for charity shelters, single-room-occupancy hotels or makeshift tents, plastic lean-tos and refrigerator boxes..."

Without giving away too much of the great plot, Liffey's relationship with his daughter remains a thing of beauty and anxiety -- even though through most of the book he has to communicate with her by laborious printing. "Jack Liffey pointed to WHO CALLED on his master list. ‘Nothing important, Dad,’ Maeve said. ‘You gotta get over thinking I’m always up to something.' It took him a while to scribble WHEN DID THE POPE STOP WEARING A DRESS."

But Maeve gets the last word on Jack Liffey. "Her dad had never been a Sunday School picnic, but he always gritted his teeth and set off up that sad lonely honorable road that everybody else just talked about."

Is Thomas Perry the New Dutch Leonard?

It was my friend, the much-missed Richard Condon, who first turned my attention to Elmore Leonard. "He's so good it hurts," Condon said about 52 PICKUP "The way he mixes laughter and menace is amazing." I gobbled that one up, and then noshed my way through such other delights as GET SHORTY and SWAG like a starving Semite turned loose in the Carnegie Deli.

But even Leonard, who will be 85 in September, can't go on forever. Who will take over his crown? A leading candidate has to be Thomas Perry, author of such sinister mysteries as METZGER'S DOG, THE BUTCHER'S BOY and the just-released STRIP.

Perry has turned loose so many great, lovable/hateable characters in STRIP that it's hard to decide where to begin. Joe Carver is a man who comes to California from New York. "He had chosen to come to Los Angeles, and some choices could be permanent. He couldn't go back now to some place where just being alive was work. it was as though when he had crossed the California line, he had stepped off a cliff…"

Hiding high above the city in a giant tower crane from the gunsels who think -- wrongly -- that he held up their boss at an ATM, he waxes poetic about his new home. "From up here Carver could see the beauty of the city, the long straight thoroughfares lined with brightly colored signs… In the distance he could see the cluster of tall buildings at the city center. He always looked for the tallest, the cylindrical office building he thought of as the Nose-Hair Building, because it looked like a device he'd seen advertised on television late at night for shaving the nostrils…"

Another fascinating cast member is Manco Kapak, the mob boss who had the misfortune of being robbed at gunpoint by a man in a ski mask. For reasons too complicated to explain, Manco and his men are sure that Carver did the dirty deed. Here's how a naked, flabby but still formidable old lion like Manco reacts when he first meets Carver, who has broken into his house while Kapak has just emerged from the shower.

"The man was about forty, with a short beard that looked as though he hadn't had a chance to shave.'Who the hell are you?' Manco blusters. 'I'm Joe Carver… I came this morning because I wanted you to get a chance to look at me. Now you know that I'm somebody you never saw before. I never held you up.'"

Meanwhile, Jefferson Davis Falkins, the real thief, decides to continue to rob Kapak. Then there's a very interesting bent cop, who is a bigamist in need of mucho dinero to get his five children through college; Carrie Carr, a gorgeous nutcase who hooks up with Falkins; and Spence, Kapak's trusted bodyguard.

Great characters plus fine, often laugh-out-loud writing equals a tremendous must-read.


I once got into trouble for revealing in a review of Walter Mosely's A LITTLE YELLOW DOG that Mouse -- Easy Rawlins' trusty and homicidal buddy -- was apparently dead. It turned out that Mosely had changed his mind and brought Mouse back to life in his next book.

I don't want to make the same mistake again. But a close reading of Lee Child's superb new Jack Reacher thriller 61 HOURS leads me to think of Edward G. Robinson's last line in LITTLE CAESAR -- "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"

The biggest hint is not that Reacher has disappeared after a toxic explosion near the frigid town of Bolton, South Dakota. Our Jack has disappeared before, and always managed to come back. But in this one he has built up a close vocal relationship with a woman in Virginia, and at book's end she hasn't heard a word from him a month after the blast.

Reacher arrives in Bolton the way he usually does -- by accident. This time, he's hitched a ride on a tour bus taking a group of senior citizens to Mount Rushmore. The bus is driven off the icy road by a coincidence -- another Child speciality. He and the driver help the other passengers stay alive until help comes. Then, back in Bolton, Jack is drafted/blackmailed into helping the local cops solve a very strange mystery about what an odd cement structure in the middle of an empty field, built 50 years before, has to do with a thriving local meth industry run by bikers, and a Mexican drug lord called Plato.

Plato is the most frightening and fascinating of heavies in recent memory. Here's how we first meet him: "Plato was dressed in chinos and a white button-down shirt and black leather penny loafer shoes, all from the Brooks Brothers' boys' collection. The shoes and the clothes fit very well, but he looked odd in them. They were made for fat white middle-class American children, and Plato was old and brown and squat and had a shaved bullet head…" (Plato, who is 4'11, once cut off a man's legs to match his own height after the man called him a dwarf.)

We also learn a lot more about Jack Reacher: "He lived nowhere, and always had. He had been born the son of a serving military officer, in a Berlin infirmary, and since the day he had been carried out of it swaddled in blankets he had been dragged all over the world…"

I could go on for pages, about how Child gets us to believe precisely what it's like inside a top security prison, or how extreme cold affects the human body. But I don't want to spoil an instant of your pleasure...

Finding Scott Phillips--Another Kindle Adventure

Finding Scott Phillips--Another Kindle Adventure
CrimeFactory Magazine
I've always thought that Scott Phillips was one of the shining lights of the mystery world: I loved his THE ICE HARVEST, COTTONWOOD and THE WALKAWAY, especially the way all three books were joined together by recurring characters. Then I realized that I hadn't heard any news about Phillips in a long while.

It was clearly another case for my trusty Kindle. Not only did the device, now wearing a handsome brown leather jacket, tell me that Phillips had finished a new book since THE WALKAWAY -- an upcoming hardcover called THE ADJUSTMENT, due out in September -- but that he was also featured in a new online magazine called CRIMEFACTORY, which calls itself "a bi-monthly noir/hardboiled crime fiction publication," doing an article about another of my favorite writers, the late Charles Willeford for its first issue.

For just $1.00, Kindle instantly sent me a copy of the CRIMEFACTORY issue containing Phillips' article. It was terrific, starting with this memorable line -- "Hitchcock Charles Willeford [HIS FULL NAME] is the funniest writer I ever read." He talks about Willeford's best-known work, the Hoke Mosely series which began with MIAMI BLUES, and then about how Willeford has influenced his own writing. "I actually started asking myself, 'What would Willeford do?' whenever I came to a moral crossroad..."

There's lots more of this delightful stuff in CRIMEFACTORY, plus other goodies: an unpublished novel excerpt from Ken Bruen, and stories by Derringer-Award-winner Dave White, star of the short form Patti Abbott, and upandcomers Frank Bill, Steve Weddle, Hilary Davidson and Keiran Shea.

For a mere buck, CRIMEFACTORY is my best bargain buy on Kindle -- except for WAR AND PEACE, which was free...

A Most Impressive Debut

Young Mike Bowditch has just heard a story from his father, Jack, about a WWII German prisoner who had escaped from a camp in Maine into the thick woods and was never captured. Mike quickly accuses his father of lying.

"…I didn't know what had disturbed me more: that I had doubted my father reflexively, or the wistful look that came into his eyes as he told that story, as if his own greatest wish was to vanish into the woods and never return."

That quote, which comes early on in Paul Doiron's absolutely flawless debut mystery, THE POACHER'S SON, sets the tone for the book.

Mike is now a Maine game warden, as his father once was. The old man has become a poacher in the woods and lakes of Northern Maine, as well as a drunken brawler of frightening proportions. When Mike was just nine, his mother -- who could take no more -- left Jack, taking Mike with her. Again, the results reverberate from past to present with eerie and touching precision.

The book begins when Mike gets a call from a farmer who says that his favorite pig, Pork Chop, has been stolen by a large black bear. After warning the man not to shoot at a bear with the .22 rifle he has in one hand -- especially while holding a can of beer in the other, the man retreats. "I watched him shuffle away into the house, head hanging, beer in hand. No wonder his wife left him, I thought. Then I remembered my own empty bed back home and I stopped feeling so superior. Sarah had been gone exactly fifty-five days."

(It was Sarah who said after her only meeting with Jack, "Your dad looks a little like Paul Newman -- if he hadn't had a bath in a while. He's got that beautiful wild man quality…")

Doiron -- editor-in-chief of DOWN EAST magazine -- shows his love and knowledge of the Maine woods often."I pushed my way into the forest. Beaded rainwater spilled off the leaves onto my shoulders and face. I was drenched in an instant… I knew retired game wardens and ancient trappers who who could hear the rustle a buck made passing through alders across a stream. .. Maybe someday I'd be one of those old woodsmen. But for the moment I was still a twenty-four-year-old rookie, less than a year on the job, and my senses told me nothing about where the bear was."

This is my pick so far for best mystery of the year.

Gar Goes For Broke

Like most mystery writers who aren't Scott Turow or Michael Connelly, Gar Anthony Haywood has had trouble finding and keeping a decent publisher. But in an ending straight out of a Frank Capra film, Haywood has been signed by a British-based publisher called Severn House which sells mostly to libraries and is obviously widening its horizons.

Haywood, who has written two strong series -- the Aaron Gunner mysteries and the Joe and Dottie Loudermilk humor-laced books -- must have knocked the socks off of the Severn House folk with CEMETERY ROAD.

Said Publishers Weekly in a Starred Review, "Reverberations from a crime committed in their youth follow three grown men with the tenacity and inevitability of Greek tragedy in Haywood's beautifully crafted novel of unintended consequences."

Booklist, also in a Starred Review, said "This gripping stand-alone thriller marks the long-awaited return of Gar Anthony Haywood, author of the critically acclaimed Aaron Gunner series (ALL THE LUCKY ONES ARE DEAD, 2000)."

The story concerns three young Los Angeles men who are petty thieves. Twenty-six years later, one of them is killed -- a crime that has reverberations in both the past and the present.

CEMETERY ROAD is a tremendous read, as much for its razor-sharp writing as for its exciting and tragic story. "R.J., by comparison, was not nearly so complex," Haywood says about one of the three. "If any of us was predisposed to a life of crime, it was him. R.J. was short and lean and forever on the lookout for any sign of disrespect, and there was no fight or challenge he would not take on with the zeal of a man possessed..."

Haywood's book has just been published. And in another act of taste and wisdom, Severn House has also signed John Shannon to more of his terrific Jack Liffey mysteries. The first will be ON THE NICKEL, to be published in July. Good on you, Brits...


I love mystery fiction, but every now and then along comes a superb non-fiction book which shouts for attention. Such a book is Ben MacIntyre's OPERATION MINCEMEAT.

If you saw the 1956 British film THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS, you know the basic story: the body of a British officer, apparently the victim of a plane crash, is washed up on the shore of Spain, a briefcase chained to his wrist. The pro-German government of Franco's Spain discovers that the briefcase contains documents pointing to a British invasion of Greece or Sardinia -- not Sicily, as the Germans had come to believe.

The whole thing was an amazing British hoax, dreamed up by a mastermind (played by Clifton Webb in the film, but based on the two outstanding espionage officers -- Ewen Montagu and his MI5 colleague Charles Chomondeley, who really did all the work).

But with all the ferreting skills he used so well in AGENT ZIGZAG (2007), MacIntyre delves into recently released official records to flesh out his story. For example, the hoax was based on a previous one known as the Haversack Ruse -- invented during WW1 by Richard Meinertzhagen: ornithologist, anti-Semitic Zionist, big game hunter, fraud and English spy. T.E. Lawrence called him "a man …willing to harness evil to the chariot of good."

A few other delights from MacIntyre's bodacious research: the wonderfully-named Sir Bentley Purchase, the cheerfully black-humored coroner of St Pancras who (illegally) colluded in the procurement of the body, and this -- which may be one too many, but what the hell.

"The chariot (carrying the body of homeless Welsh vagrant Glyndwr Michael) continued through the center of the town and past the Teatro Mora, which was showing PYGMALION, starring Leslie Howard."

As one British reviewer enthused about MacIntyre, "His book is a rollicking read for all those who enjoy a spy story so fanciful that Ian Fleming -- himself an officer in Montagu’s wartime department -- would never have dared to invent it."

Goodbye, Old Friend

Goodbye, Old Friend
Was it really 20 years ago that the entertainment staff of The Herald Examiner took our superb music critic Alan Rich to Locanda Veneta (his choice) to celebrate his 65th birthday?

The tab was large, even by 1984 standards, and the assistant managing editor screamed so hard that her dentures actually flew across the room. But she approved my expense account, because she knew what a classy critic Rich was -- and the paper needed all the class it could get.

Alan died this week at age 85. A few years ago, I asked him if he remembered his 65th party and the Locanda. "Hell, yes," he replied. "I pass it every time I go to see all my doctors at Cedars-Sinai."

Me and My Kindle

Me and My Kindle
Sunday morning, I picked up my Kindle -- a weak-eyed man's best friend -- and read my New York Times.

The Book Review had two fascinating pieces: a most favorable review by Christopher Buckley of a first novel called THE IMPERFECTIONISTS by Tom Rachman, about an English-language daily published in Rome -- rather like an Italian version of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune.

I went to my Kindle's menu, clicked on "Shop Kindle Store," and in seconds a copy of THE IMPERFECTIONISTS was delivered to my home page. At first glance, it seems to be everything that Buckley enthused about -- full of beautiful writing, jaded but memorable characters, a rich feeling of the great city of Rome.

Also in the NYTBR was a long piece about several recent books on the subject of who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. Briefly mentioned was a 2007 book called A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, by James Shapiro -- a book I've meant to read since its publication. Once again, the Kindle Store had it whizzing to me.

Saturday's additions were an Edgar-winning 2008 thriller by John Hart (who just won another Edgar for THE LAST CHILD -- great choice, MWA members), and THE DISCOVERY OF FRANCE, by Graham Robb, which includes these delicious quotes: "This was the puzzle of micro provinces that General de Gaulle had in mind when he asked, 'How can one be expected to govern a country that has 246 different kinds of cheese?'" and "On the Cote d'Azur in the hills behind Cannes and Saint-Tropez, wild people were said to descend into market towns wearing goatskins and speaking their own incomprehensible language..."

To be continued..

The Dark Side of Orange County

Okay, so those smartypants at Akashic turned down my idea for VENTURA COUNTY NOIR. Even so, I can't think of two better people to focus on our neighbor to the south than this book's editor, Gary Phillips, and T. Jefferson Parker, whose novel, THE IRON RIVER, should already be on everybody's Best of 2010 Thrillers List.

In his Foreward, Parker writes, "I first set foot in Orange County half a century ago. Our new Tustin tract home cost $21,000. The dads wore showcase flattops and skinny neckties... Now look at it. How that Orange County became the one we see today is a tale of migration and war and race and economics..."

Phillips approaches the arena as an outsider, born in South Central L.A. on the same day that Disneyland opened in Anaheim. "When I was a kid...what I knew about life behind the Orange County was nil. None of my relatives lived there, nor did my folks have friends in the area."

Gary seems to have pulled out all the stops on his organ, persuading some of the top names in the crime writing trade (including himself, Dick Lochte, Bob Levinson, Robert Ward and Susan Straight) to contribute original stories that are all dark and some very funny.